The way Robert Bowers seemed to see things, he was doing the country a favor.
“HIAS likes to brings invaders in that kill our people,” the suspected gunman posted on the Gab.com social media site minutes before beginning a rampage at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue building in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead last Saturday. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
By HIAS, Bowers was referring to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which got its start assisting Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe toward the end of the 19th century and today provides resettlement, legal and other services for primarily non-Jewish refugees. By “invaders,” Bowers was referring to the thousands of migrants from Central America approaching the southern U.S. border with Mexico.
As of Oct. 30, Bowers was recovering from police-inflicted gunshots at a Pittsburgh hospital — being treated by a medical staff that included several Jewish doctors and nurses — and the families of the victims consigned to death by his apparent hate were turning to the grim task of burying their loved ones. In times like these — although it’s hard to find a comparison to what is widely believed to be the largest mass murder of Jews in the history of the United States — we all try to make sense of the madness, sometimes grasping at straws to explain the darkness of the human condition, something that is inherently unexplainable.
But what is clear is that (by the time you read this) 11 bodies are in the ground and Bowers will likely face the death penalty because of anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is a strange phenomenon. Though it has followed our people for millennia, consigning millions of us throughout history to slavery, death and attempted extermination, some of us choose not to see it where it exists, while others see it everywhere. But here in the United States, more than seven decades after the end of World War II and the meteoric rise of Jewish Americans to the highest levels of business and politics, it’s always been in the background, whether we’ve appreciated that fact or not.
In political circles, the charge of anti-Semitism has been fought over in a kind-of turf war, with Jewish partisans and their respective organizations playing a twisted poker game of victimization (“I’ll see your Charlottesville and raise you Louis Farrakhan”).
Weeks before the attack in Pittsburgh and the suspected mailing of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats by a right-wing former male stripper who also harbored anti-Semitic animus, a Jewish community leader from Philadelphia reminded his friends and followers on Facebook that at Farrakhan rallies, every time the Nation of Islam leader describes Jews as Satan his supporters cheer. The post was a safety message, he said, a reminder to people that the seemingly friendly neighbors behind them at the checkout line weren’t who they seemed to be.
That might be true, but it wasn’t a Nation of Islam follower who shot up Tree of Life. By all accounts, it was a white, Middle America loner, a garden variety anti-Semite who embraced the “Make America Great Again” vision but for whom the movement’s leader wasn’t sufficiently anti-Jewish.
At least Bowers and I agree on one thing: President Donald Trump is no anti-Semite.
But I find it incredibly difficult to believe the denials of the president, Vice President Mike Pence and many of their supporters that the Twitter-cast rhetoric that has trafficked in the “globalist” anti-Semitic dog whistle popular with the alt-right, identified Central American migrants as “invaders,” and fueled such conspiracy theories as George Soros — the alt-right’s favorite Jew to hate — funding the migrant march has had nothing to do with the events of the past week and a half.
For the past two years, cries of increasing anti-Semitism in the United States — the swastikas on synagogues, the overturned tombstones — have been answered by various members of the political class, including in our own community, that things aren’t that bad or that, alternatively, anti-Semitism is primarily a problem among Muslims or in Europe.
I hope that now, with 11 dead, we can all agree that anti-Semitism — especially of the homegrown, American variety — IS A PROBLEM.
To be sure, there’s plenty of blame to go around for the Pittsburgh tragedy, as is true for pretty much any mass casualty event. Would posting guards at the synagogue have stopped the loss of life? Would banning assault-style rifles like the AR-15 reportedly used by Bowers have minimized the bloodshed? I don’t have any good answers to these questions, and neither does anyone else.
But what I do know is that hate has become acceptable among a certain portion of our citizenry, spread like wildfire through social media channels both traditional and upstart. And it’s become commonplace for politicians — of all parties — to borrow these haters’ imagery, to wink, to nudge, to backslap in the pursuit for votes.
I also know that Trump, who in the wake of the shootings has condemned anti-Semitism in the strongest of terms, has by virtue of being the president of the United States the largest bully pulpit in the land. And he’s still whipping up xenophobic furor over the migrants and calling the press the “enemy of the people” on Twitter.
I’m a member of the press. And I work in the same building as HIAS Pennsylvania. Call me selfish, but I’d like to not worry the next time I go to work — or go to shul — about my own safety the way we all are in this post-Pittsburgh world.
That will start with all of our elected leaders doing exactly what Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said is needed during an interview on CNN.
“Tone down the hate,” he said. “Speak words of love. Speak words of decency and of respect. When that message comes loud and clear, Americans will hear that and we can begin to change the tenor of our country.”
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected].